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Tell Laura I Love Her

My class reunion took me back to Texas and memories of tragic, sweet Laura. The Laura who married George, and became America's First Lady.

By Rex Weyler 15 Mar 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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We rolled past Rattlesnake Raceway into the West Texas town of Midland, and the memories rose in waves with the hot air currents from the red earth. The crossed destinies of 37 years pressed on the windows of Gregg Hurt's white Chevrolet Trailblazer. Outside on the mesquite plains: pumpjacks, the unofficial logos of the oil fields arrayed like a civilization of giant, black mosquitoes probing the earth for its black fluids.

In Midland, everything is connected to oil.

Midland, Texas is the executive center for the Permian Basin oil and gas region, comprising one-fifth of America's petroleum reserves. My father, a petroleum engineer, worked in one of the modest office towers overlooking the desert plateau.

For Gregg and me it was nothing more than our old hometown, where we went to high school, kissed our first girlfriends, and drove our first cars. Gregg was the pole-vaulter on our school track team. I ran the mile. We road together on buses to Pecos and Abilene and won medals for our exploits. We were the Robert E. Lee Rebels. In the summers, he worked in his father's grocery store, and I work in these oil fields, laying pipeline past anthills and horned toads.

I live in Vancouver now, but Gregg had convinced me to come to this high school reunion themed "Celebrating America." When I graduated in 1966, I left for college in California and had not returned for thirty-seven years. I feared that my old classmates would resent me. Not only did I leave Texas, but I dodged the draft, became an anti-war activist, took illicit drugs in exotic lands, and fled to Canada. In the ultra-patriotic atmosphere of America today, I thought I'd be an anomaly, seen as a libertarian traitor. Some of our classmates fought and died in Vietnam.

Gregg, who earned a service medal in Vietnam, didn't hold any of this against me. "I'm apolitical," he told me in the car. "All I did in Vietnam was shuttle dignitaries like Bob Hope and Gerald Ford around in a Saberliner."

After his stint in the Air Force, Gregg went to work for Continental Airlines. He now flew the world's most sophisticated commercial airliner, the Boeing 777. We drove into Midland, past the El Zarape bar with green paint peeling in the sun.

Gregg pointed out his old pole vault pit as we rolled past San Jacinto High School, where George Walker Bush played baseball and first met Laura Welch.

When Laura was a carefree teenager

By the time we were in high school, the future president was off to Phillips Academy in Andover, Maryland, but Laura was our classmate at the more commonplace Robert E. Lee. She was a friend of Gregg's older sister, Betsy. The Welch's were a modest but successful family in Midland. Laura's father was a residential home contractor. Laura was genteel, cute, and popular. She loved to dance to the Drifters in the basement of their home on Humble Avenue, named after the oil company. Laura Welch was a top student, on the yearbook staff, on the Student Council, and a homecoming queen nominee. She liked to drive around with her friends in her family's brand new 1963 Chevrolet Impala.

Laura's idyllic teenage life, however, was shattered two days after her seventeenth birthday, when she ran a stop sign and hit a car driven by her classmate Michael Douglas. The accident occurred just after 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday night, November 6, 1963.

According to friends, Laura left in the car, upset about something that had happened at home, and picked up her friend Judy Dykes a few blocks away. They drove north out of town and turned east on Farm Road 868, which we called "The Loop," the road to the good parking spots among the mesquite bushes. At the corner of Big Springs, the highway that continues north to Lubbock, Laura ran the stop sign and slammed into the right front of Michael's southbound 1962 Corvair. A police report was filed, but no citation was issued.

Laura was being treated for minor injuries at Midland Memorial Hospital when she heard that Michael had died at the scene from a broken neck. She was devastated. At school, students talked of a relationship between Laura and Michael. Stories circulated that Douglas was Laura Welch's "fiancé" or her "boyfriend," but whether this was so remained unknown to any but Laura's closest friends, who never confirmed the stories. Years later, Regan Gammon, Laura's confidant since they were young girls, would only say that Michael was "a very close friend of Laura's."

Douglas was on the track team, but I remembered him as a member of the "Rebel Brigade," the coolest studs in the school, the boys who drove the jeep with the huge Confederate flag at football games. Douglas was a leader among the leaders, smart, handsome, and kind to everyone.

The tragic accident overwhelmed Laura. She did not return to school until after Christmas. When she did return to complete her senior year, she never mentioned the accident, even among her friends, and no one brought it up in her presence.

Local boy makes good

Over breakfast at Gregg's parents' house the next day, talk turns the Bushes of Midland. Old friends in Midland remember young George Bush as an average baseball player, but clever at trading baseball cards. The future president wrote to famous players, got autographs on the cards, and sold them at high prices to his friends. "The values Midland holds near to its heart," Bush once told reporters - hard work, faith, and optimism - "are the same ones I hold near to my heart."

The family with an international banking fortune relocated from New Haven to Texas in 1947, where George H.W.'s offshore drilling business boomed. By 1959, they had moved from Midland to Houston. Young George W. got into Yale with dismal SAT scores. He avoided Vietnam by signing up for the Texas Air National Guard, but the paper trail casts doubt on whether he ever completed the last two years of his commitment.

He returned to Midland in 1977, and leveraged a $17,000 investment from his trust fund into an $848,560 stock deal a few weeks before his company, Harken Energy Corporation, announced a $23.2 million quarterly loss, and the stock crashed, a scenario very similar to the later Enron scandal. After G.H.W. Bush deregulated the banks, George's brothers - Neil in Denver and Jeb in Florida - socked away millions in defaulted loans. The Savings and Loan debacle of the 1980s was the largest theft in the history of the world: $1.4 trillion, still being paid for by the American taxpayers.

If George W. Bush had not perfectly embodied the hard-working spirit of Midland, someone who did was Tommy Franks. Tommy Ray, the only child of a construction worker and seamstress, was an inconspicuous lineman on the Lee High School football team. Classmates recall that Tommy "went about his business and never bothered anyone." He liked to work on his Chevelle, listen to Elvis, and hunt doves.

Mary Ann Ross, now Ryerson, a friend of Gregg's sister, remembered Franks as "quiet, hard-working, and serious. He wasn't dumb. Tommy always got a good mark." After high school, he attended the University of Texas but dropped out and joined the army. He earned three Purple Hearts in Vietnam and entered an officer's degree program at the University of Texas. It was Franks who epitomized the diligent Midlander who made something extraordinary from a modest beginning.

When Bush assumed the presidency, he handpicked many of his aides from his Midland friends. Tommy Franks went on to lead the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He ventured a prediction about what an attack on American soil, if deadly enough, would mean for the country. The Constitution, he told Cigar Aficionado magazine, would likely be jettisoned in favor of a military regime.

'Not worth digging into'

At the class reunion lunch, people wanted to know why I lived in Canada. This was a polite way of inquiring whether or not I was a draft dodger, but most of my friends already knew my politics. A member of the football team mentioned that he sent a letter to the reunion organizers asking if anyone had invited the black students from Carver High. They hadn't. I learned that in 1990, the Confederate flag at Lee High School was retired in favor of multicultural sensitivity, although some said, "Sacrificed to political correctness."

The main event, later that evening, was held at the Midland Country Club. To get there, Gregg and I drove through the fateful intersection, State Highway 349 and Farm Road 868, now a four-lane highway that carried traffic around the north side of the city. New suburban homes had swallowed up the old lovers lane. An IHOP pancake house stood off to the east. The crossroads was now an overpass. From the top, we looked north into the great Llano Estacado, the "staked plain" that extends 400 miles into Colorado. Here, at this intersection, in the arid Pecos River valley, I imagined, world history was altered.

During the presidential election, pundits claimed there had been a cover-up, that dark forces had protected Laura, but this was partisan rumour. Laura was just an innocent girl who made a mistake. Normally, however, if you break a highway law and someone is killed you would get cited. There could have been a manslaughter charge. Judy Dykes, who was in the car with Laura, told the Dallas Morning News. "It is not worth digging into. It was an accident, a horrible, horrible accident years ago."

After high school, Laura went to Southern Methodist University and, according to friends, showed little interest in getting married. Laura Welch earned a Masters degree in library science from the University of Texas, taught elementary school, and returned to Midland in 1977. At that time, George Bush had received a Master of Business Administration from Harvard, and made out well in the oil business, without actually producing any oil. Laura Bush later told Ann Gerhart of the Washington Post that when she first met George in his drinking days, "I thought he was very fun. I also thought he was really cute. George is very fun. He's also slightly outrageous once in a while in a very funny and fun way and I found that a lot of fun." At 31, she was "very happy to find someone to marry."

Gregg and I swept over the crossroads and headed north to the Country Club. In the end, Laura found happiness, married into a successful family, and became the First Lady of America. But there seemed to linger some unspeakable grief.

I imagined our lives shaped by twists of fate. The crossroad itself seemed like a dream quickly patched up upon waking. What if Laura hadn't hit Mike's car, or if Mike had not died? Would the world be different? I had my first traffic accident only a few blocks from this crossroads, only a month after Laura's accident. I too drove my family's 1963 Chevy Impala, ran a stop sign, and hit another car. No one died, but I got a ticket. Was I lucky? What if I had killed someone and Laura had sailed through the intersection unscathed and carried on and had a normal high school graduation and married her sweetheart, perhaps even married Michael Douglas? What then? Who would George Bush have married? Perhaps he never would have overcome his manic drinking or become president.

Without enemies

At the Midland Country Club, the band ran through Walking The Dog, Hard Days Night, and Love Potion Number Nine. I sat at a table with old friends thumbing through a yearbook. The boys in the portraits had football crewcuts or Elvis ducktails. The girls wore enough hairspray to destroy the ozone layer.

We talked about who married their high school sweethearts, those killed in Vietnam, a mysterious classmate who reportedly worked for the CIA, and tragic tales of alcohol and drugs. We heard a story of the boy in our class, once Athlete of the Year, a basketball star at Nebraska, now homeless. Several observers groused about the classmate who was now "a big shot in television," living in Hollywood, and "too good" to come back and consort with the rest of us.

The First Lady and the President were not here. No one expected them to come, of course. But there in the old yearbook was Laura Welch. She wore a Jackie flip, had pronounced high cheekbones, and an endearing smile. "She was quiet and smart," said classmate Mary Ann Ryerson. "Everyone liked her. She never gossiped about anyone, so she didn't have enemies."

I requested the band play Tell Laura I love Her, but it didn't happen. When they struck up Wilson Pickett's In the Midnight Hour, Gregg and I left.

We had breakfast the next morning at the IHOP pancake house with our close friends, exchanged more stories and email addresses. It was heartbreaking that we had to fly apart, now that we had become close again. Gregg Hurt and I headed back out of town in his Chevy Trailblazer. We stopped at a Town and Country gas station that advertised "Celebrate America" 44-ounce ice drinks. Inside, I admired a display for the "$9.99 American Pride Tailgater Set," four plastic cups and a thermos decorated with stars and stripes. Back in the SUV, we cranked the air conditioner, roared across the plains, and sipped our huge "Celebrate America" slushies.

If anyone embodied the best values of Midland, I thought, it was Laura Welch. I was glad things worked out for her.

A version of this piece appeared in Dragonfly Media publications. Rex Weyler weyler@telus.net has lived in B.C. since 1972. His book Greenpeace: The Inside Story, a history of the ecology organization's founding in Vancouver, will be out in September from Raincoast Books.  [Tyee]

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